The attorney general for the nation’s capital. The president of a Catholic college. Teachers at a celebrated Catholic elementary school. A former White House appointee on religious freedom. Even a popular priest in his own archdiocese.
It’s not just how many people are asking Cardinal Donald Wuerl, one of the world’s most powerful Catholics, to leave office. It’s who.
Wuerl, archbishop of Washington, has spent more than 50 years climbing the ranks of the Catholic Church, building a reputation as a loyal churchman and fastidious teacher.
He is also known as a political moderate and a key ally of Pope Francis who sits on the Vatican committee that appoints bishops around the world and is one of only 10 American cardinals who could choose the next Pope.
But in the wake of a damning 900-page report by a grand jury in Pennsylvania and a letter from a former top Vatican official accusing Wuerl of covering up for his disgraced predecessor, the cardinal is facing increasing pressure to step down from his perch atop the church’s hierarchy.
What’s unusual – and potentially problematic for Wuerl – is that those calls are increasingly coming from Catholics who play prominent roles in civil and church life in Washington.
“As a Catholic, my personal opinion is that Cardinal Wuerl should step aside in light of the sex abuse allegations in the Pennsylvania report and increasing reports of more abuse survivors,” said Karl Racine, Washington’s attorney general.
Racine also told CNN that, while his office does not typically discuss “confidential enforcement activity,” the attorney general is “reviewing the findings of the Pennsylvania attorney general’s report and we will consider taking action if appropriate.”
Patricia McGuire, president of Trinity Washington University, is the first Catholic college president to publicly call for Wuerl’s ouster.
“I think Cardinal Wuerl is a good man, and I have enjoyed knowing him,” said McGuire, who also sits on the board of Catholic Charities of Washington, the archdiocese’s leading charity group.
“But at some point the leader in a crisis has to know when to stay and try to fix the situation, and when deciding to step aside is an act of accountability and atonement. I don’t think Cardinal Wuerl is as culpable as some of his critics say, but at some point a leader has to step aside to let the healing process begin.”
McGuire said her views are widely shared on Trinity Washington University’s campus, which sits across the street from the US Conference of Catholic Bishops’ headquarters in Washington.
On Tuesday, faculty from Holy Trinity School in Georgetown protested at a Mass for Catholic schools in Washington, as an “act of solidarity against the injustices condoned by Cardinal Wuerl.”
In a public letter to the Vatican’s US ambassador, Archbishop Christophe Pierre, Trinity teachers called for Wuerl’s “immediate removal.”
Jack Devlin, a schoolteacher who attended the protest, told CNN that Wuerl’s record on clergy sexual abuse, as recounted in the Pennsylvania grand jury report, is mixed.
“However, for every good thing that Cardinal Wuerl did, there were enough negative things that he did that we find unforgivable.”
But the Archdiocese of Washington has vigorously defended Wuerl, sending detailed explanations of his actions to area clergy and pushing back against accusations that he failed to deal adequately with pedophile priests while he was the bishop of Pittsburgh.
The archdiocese declined to make Wuerl available for comment. But Kim Viti Fiorentino, chancellor of the Archdiocese of Washington, called the demands for Wuerl’s resignation “misguided and mistaken.”
“If you look at his record on child protection, not only is he one of the leaders in this area and one of the historic pioneers really in this area, but he has spent his entire priesthood (and) his episcopacy dedicated to protecting children, and if people reflect on his full record and the facts, they will see that.”
Fiorentino said Wuerl does not plan to resign.
“Obviously there’s going to be disagreements in opinion, but I think there is a path for us to move forward together in a really positive way.”
Archdiocesan officials also deny that Wuerl knew that his predecessor as archbishop, Theodore McCarrick, had been accused of sexually abusing seminarians in New Jersey before he came to DC. Those allegations resulted in at least two legal settlements, according to church officials.
The Pope forced McCarrick to resign from the College of Cardinals last month after those accusations, as well as church charges that he sexually abused a minor, came to light. McCarrick, 89, has not commented on the accusations that he abused seminarians and said he is innocent of the allegations that he abused a minor.
’You know where this is going’
Like all Catholic bishops, Wuerl technically resigned when he turned 75 two years ago. But the Pope hasn’t accepted his resignation. Cardinals are often allowed to serve until they are 80, if they are in good health. An avid swimmer, Wuerl, 77, is fit and trim.
While Wuerl has publicly battled bishops who want to prohibit Catholic politicians from receiving Holy Communion if they support abortion rights, he has generally sidestepped the culture wars, as well as the globe-trotting and glad-handing that McCarrick enjoyed.
Instead, Wuerl is known as the consummate churchman, careful and polished, with rarely a stray hair or word.
Some Catholics say they cannot foresee Wuerl stepping down – or the Pope accepting his resignation. At least, not in the immediate future.
“We have a mob mentality right now, where everyone is saying ‘Off with all their heads!’” said the Rev. Lou Vallone, a parish priest who worked with the cardinal during Wuerl’s 18-year tenure as bishop of Pittsburgh.
“Everyone is enraged. But would the next archbishop of Washington really be any more ‘perfect’ than Wuerl?”
But accountability, not perfection, is the question of this Catholic moment, said James Zogby, a prominent Washington Catholic.
Zogby, the founding president of the Arab-American Institute and a former member of the presidentially appointed US Commission of International Religious Freedom, said he was at Mass last Sunday when the priest began to talk about Wuerl.
“My wife nudged me and said, ‘You know where this is going,’” Zogby recalled.
The priest, the Rev. Percival D’Silva, made national news in 2002 by being one of the few Catholic priests calling for the resignation of the late Cardinal Bernard Law of Boston after that city’s clergy sex abuse scandal.
In his sermon last Sunday at the Shrine of the Most Blessed Sacrament, D’Silva called on his boss to step down. The priest, who has tussled with Wuerl before over parish assignments, shared a portion of his sermon with CNN:
“Cardinal Wuerl – This is my request to you: In the name of Jesus Christ. In the name of and for the good of the Catholic Church. In the name of and for the good of all the abused. In the name of and for the good of all the priests – Please resign. Please step down. We are all hurting. Your stepping down will be the first necessary step in the process of healing. The Church is much larger than one, individual bishop.”
D’Silva received a standing ovation when his homily was finished, Zogby said.
“I looked at his record in Pittsburgh, and it is not a pretty one. I’ve seen the arguments (from the archdiocese) that he was not culpable. But culpability is widespread. You either knew about the accusations and were responsible, or you didn’t know, and you are still responsible.
“I think he should resign. It would send the message that, ‘We get it. We failed you. Please forgive us.’”
Like other Catholics calling for Wuerl’s resignation, Zogby has signed a statement urging all 271 active bishops in the US to tender their resignations to the Pope in a symbolic act of penance.
’There was no conspiracy’
Vallone, the Pittsburgh priest, said Wuerl, early in his tenure as Bishop of Pittsburgh, made mistakes in his handling of clergy sexual abuse, but that the Pennsylvania grand jury report portrays him in an unfair light.
“The attorney general had an agenda and it’s stated at the front of the report: to get ‘look back’ and ‘window’ legislation passed,” Vallone said. Those legal changes could make it easier for abuse survivors to sue their abusers.
To do that, the grand jury had to make the case that such laws are warranted because church cover-ups essentially allowed the current statute of limitations to play out, said Vallone.
As an expert in church law, the priest said he consulted closely with church lawyers during Wuerl’s tenure in Pittsburgh, which began in 1989.
“I can state pretty categorically that, from 1989, there were no deliberate cover-ups. Did they make mistakes? Yeah. But it was due to stupidity, incompetence and lack of due diligence. But there was no conspiracy. We did things in the light of the times.”
Vallone compared the church’s response to pedophile priests to construction companies who once thought asbestos was safe. Once the psychological depth and possible incurability of pedophilia became more widely known, Wuerl took appropriate action, according to Vallone and the Archdiocese of Washington.
Some Pittsburgh priests complained that Wuerl moved too quickly to remove accused priests, without providing them with lawyers or allowing them to plead innocence.
“We felt that he was too draconian,” Vallone said. “He was throwing priests under the bus. The priests in Pittsburgh do not believe the grand jury report is accurate with regard to Cardinal Wuerl’s tenure here.”
Joseph Cordes, a professor of economics at George Washington University, said he’s willing to concede that Wuerl “got religion” on clergy abuse and adopted more stringent policies.
“But I don’t think that absolves him. I think it would be an important gesture for him to resign right now. In the Navy, if you are captain of a ship and it runs aground, you are done, even if it’s not your fault.”
Dawn Eden Goldstein, an assistant professor at Holy Apostles College and Seminary in Connecticut who lives in Washington (she teaches her courses online), said some of the calls for Wuerl to resign are coming from conservatives who want to take down one of Pope Francis’ top allies.
“There is an enormous amount of prejudice against Wuerl from people who are prejudiced against Francis.”
But the people calling for Wuerl’s removal in Washington are also a mix of liberal and conservative, young and old, men and women. Goldstein counts herself among them.
“It’s a shame that these things get politicized,” she said, “because abuse is not a liberal or a conservative issue, and it is unfair to victims to politicize it.”